MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Chicken and waffles

By Nick Roumel

I sometimes visit Cadillac Square in Detroit for labor hearings, and the parking lot is adjacent to the New Center Eatery. I have never been inside, but there is a sign boasting of its chicken and waffles. Chicken and waffles, I thought? That's not really a combination ... that's sort of like, crabmeat and bananas, or spinach and fudge ... you get the idea.

Oh, how wrong I was. Little did this northern boy know that chicken and waffles is a southern thing. Historians trace it to the 1800s, although its exact origin is disputed.

And I have since become a total convert. Although I have not yet had the pleasure of going to the New Center Eatery (where celebrities, such as Robin Givens, are reported to dine), I recently visited "The Soul Hole" in Traverse City. Yes, you southern folks may scoff that TC features soul food, but putting aside what some may consider "authentic," this was one of the finest, most memorable meals I've had in recent ages.

I went in prepared. I had scanned the menu the day before and spoken to a waitress, so I knew that this was a lot of food. I prepared by skipping breakfast and running 10 miles. In anticipation, I sat down indoors, ordered my sweet tea, and soon enough, was rewarded with the most amazing combination of foods I have ever seen on one plate.

The menu describes it as "Cornbread waffles topped with smoked country ham and a buttermilk fried chicken breast, served with mashed yams, braised cabbage, and bourbon spiked Michigan maple syrup." The dish arrived with a massive piece of chicken, delectably crispy, juicy inside, smothering the waffles. Arranged around the chicken like a skirt were four or five thick pieces of ham. The third meat consisted of hearty pieces of smoked bacon flavoring the scoop of braised cabbage; and the mashed yams with pecans was a meal in itself.

I tried everything alone, and in combination with one another, and with the syrup. I hadn't considered how chicken and maple might go together, and while not exactly synergistic, chicken has always been a meat that matches with sweet and savory foods. What was most interesting to me was how the all the dishes worked on the same plate.

But not so much in the same belly. Despite my skipped breakfast and long run, I also had to skip dinner - except for perhaps a nibble of the Soul Hole's scrumptious peach cobbler, and a cup of strong coffee for the ride home. During that long trip back to Ann Arbor, I contemplated how to recreate chicken and waffles, but in a more manageable way.

My variation below is by no means light - but slightly more reasonable. First, although fried chicken is most commonly used, I decided to bake mine. Second, I stuffed the breast with ham in lieu of serving the two meats separately. Third, instead of putting yams on the side, I mixed mashed sweet potatoes into the waffle batter. And finally, I lightened up on the token vegetable, serving braised Michigan asparagus.

But I did not skimp on taste. The result was as fine a combination of flavors as you might want, and allows you, after eating, to rise unassisted from your chair. This is Nick's chicken and waffles, with a baked chicken breast stuffed with smoked ham and sage butter, dredged in buttermilk and bread crumbs; served with sweet potato waffles, candied pecans, bourbon-spiked maple syrup, and Michigan asparagus.

Serves 4-6

* 4 chicken breasts.

* 1/4 lb smoked ham, sliced.

* 1 1/2 sticks butter, divided 1/2 stick and 1 whole stick.

* 1 TBs dried sage.

* flour.

* plenty of bread crumbs.

* pint of buttermilk.

* salt, pepper, smoked paprika.

1. Make the chicken.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Wash and pat dry the four chicken breasts.

Slice the breasts lengthwise 2/3 through. Rub the insides of each with a tablespoon of butter and a 1/2 tsp of sage, and add a little salt and pepper. Stuff in a piece or two of ham.

Coat each breast lightly with flour. Dredge in buttermilk to get a thick coating.

Mix the breadcrumbs in a large freezer bag or plastic storage container with a teaspoon of salt, and shake each breast inside until it is thickly coated with the breadcrumb mixture.

Place the breasts on a lightly oiled baking pan. Melt remaining butter over low heat with the smoked paprika and pour this over the breasts.

Heat at 425 for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and start the waffles. In the meantime, cook the chicken at 350 for 25 more minutes.

2. Make the sweet potato waffles.

I found a good recipe on food.com by "LUv 2 BaKE" but for the sake of expediency, and to avoid further bad spelling and grammar, I will simply advise you to make your own favorite waffle recipe, and add a cup of pureed sweet potato - fresh or canned - to the batter. "LUV's" recipe also featured a bit of cinnamon, clove, and grated orange rind. Do remember to separate your eggs, and beat the whites separately, to get the proper consistency.

3. Spiked syrup and pecans.

Place a pint of genuine maple syrup over low heat with a tablespoon each of bourbon and butter. I used Jack Daniel's honey whiskey. A little goes a long way.

I experimented with candied pecans from Trader Joe's, and orange spiced pecans from Sparrow Market. I heated them a few minutes in the hot oven. Each flavor worked well with the rest of the ingredients.

4. Asparagus.

Please tell me you know how to make asparagus. And don't call me a smart aleck.

5. Arranging the dish.

Overlap two beautiful, golden brown sweet potato waffles on the back of the plate. Slice your breasts cross-wise, and lean three or four pieces ever so gently against your waffles, across the center of the plate. Place asparagus spears in front. Top the waffles with a little extra butter, warm spiked syrup and pecans.

6. The aftermath.

Eat slowly and thoughtfully. Savor the wonderment of the unexpected combination of flavors - even the asparagus tastes pretty good with maple syrup. Save room for peach cobbler. Run ten miles. Be kind to strangers. Start a savings account. Why, when I was your age...

Stifle it, Roumel. I can't even get up from this chair.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor.

Published: Fri, Jun 22, 2012

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